Sifting through the ruins of a tragedy

Every once in a while although it does seem to be happening more often now, something horribly awful happens in one part of the world that shakes up the whole of humanity and sets us into a major soul-searching effort. We sit in front of our television sets with mouths wide agape, shake our heads and bewail the utter senselessness of it all.

But eventually, when media has milked all the juicy bits out of the tragedy, we settle into our old routines and get on with our lives. And everything seems forgotten and the world seems a better place again. Until the next horrible event comes along, of course, at which point we go through the whole exercise again.

I didn’t write about the Virginia Tech killings which took place a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to do so when all the dust has settled and the blaming and wailing has subsided. I know that it will take some more time before all, or at least most of the pieces of the puzzle could be assembled and a more enlightened analysis of the terrible event could be made.

The tragedy happened halfway across the world but it had a chilling effect on everyone because of several factors.

The tragedy happened inside a campus, a place we expect to be generally safe and where mass murder is supposed to be merely a theoretical construct discussed in Psychology or Literature class rather than something that one witnesses as a real occurrence. If our campuses cannot be safe anymore and a student can go on a killing rampage, it begs painful and embarrassing questions. What does it say of ourselves as elders, parents, and teachers if we’ve given rise to times where violence can come knocking on the door of classrooms and snuff out promising lives?

I am aware that there are people who frown at self-flagellation and would prefer to look at the terrible things that happen in the world as natural phenomena, something that cannot be helped. I don’t.

We must sit up and note that the killing spree comes on the heels of similar incidents that indicate a disturbing pattern. It started at Columbine eight years ago. While it would be grossly unfair and immature to make generalizations and say that the events are connected in some way, there are certain disturbing parallels in all these events.

We all know that youth can be excruciating, particularly for those who do not fit in. It is a stage rife with possibilities for feeling hate, self-loathing and all forms of psychological pain but up until now, we’ve never seen these transformed into rage of such magnitude. The fact is that this new form of venting pain and anger has become a disturbing reality. It would be naïve and immature to assume that Cho was simply a copycat of the Columbine, Amish schoolhouse, Red Lake or Jonesboro gunmen for his actions did show a steely determination. But this disturbing fact must be confronted: Killing sprees has seemingly become a potent alternative for kids who are troubled enough to pursue it.

The tragedy does seem like a grisly sequel, but unfortunately, it is not a rerun of a “Friday the 13th” or “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” It wasn’t simply a Tarantino film, nor a computer game where kids can massacre others with guns and chainsaws. We must remember that kids today are regularly exposed, perhaps desensitized to such a gruesome specter. We rile about sex on media, but not enough about violence.

Of course the tragedy happened because Cho Heung-Sui, the gunman, was stark raving mad. His ranting as contained in the plays that he wrote for his English courses indicate this. His behaviors on campus were a serious cause for concern. It was clear that his mind was snapping. So the painful question must be asked: Why didn’t anyone do something?

I hate to cast blame on others, particularly the victims of the tragedy. But we must remind ourselves of this truism: evil things happen because very often, good men don’t do anything or at least enough, to stop them. A lesson that has been learned from many similar events do stand out from memory such as those done by the passengers of Flight 93 during the 9/11 tragedy. They were brave enough to charge the hijackers and prevent that plane’s crash into the Capitol Building or the White House.

I remember being on a plane after the 9/11 tragedy where the pilot reminded passengers that they can do something in the event something similar happens— throw anything at the hijacker, beat him senseless, barricade him, etc. A fact that painfully stands out in the Virginia Tech tragedy was that there was only one crazed gunman and hundreds of other students.

Based on reports, we now know that some students survived because they barricaded the classroom doors. One professor, Liviu Librescu, a Romanian who was a survivor of the Holocaust, gave up his life by holding the door closed while his students escaped through the windows. He was killed and shot through the door. In another class, many died simply because the students couldn’t convince the professor to barricade the door. It’s time to rethink the way we condition ourselves to deal with tragedy.

In the mad rush to cast blame somewhere, so much gobbledygook has been spewed on profiling the killer’s background and on the issue of gun control. As usual, we are barking up the wrong tree.

As an Asian, I was extremely disturbed by the constant mention of the killer’s race so much so that all references to him was preceded by the description “Korean-American.”

A Filipino friend, who was vacationing in Los Angeles at the time of the killing, narrated that when the initial reports of the killing started to come on in television identifying the gunman as Asian, the common reaction among our countrymen in the US was to pray “let it not be a Filipino, please.” I know that Cho was Korean. But to constantly rub his ethnic origin in every single report smacks of denial. The gunman did the horrible crime not because he was Korean. He did it because he was sick and disturbed. He did it because, as I said, it has become an option. He could have been of any other ethnic descent. The color of his skin and the shape of his eyes have nothing to do with it.

Expectedly, the tragedy has sparked once again the bitter debate on gun control. Yes, Cho was able to vent his anger and his madness because he had access to guns. But then again, who can actually fathom the motivations and intentions of a mad mind? The fact that he had access to guns was a major factor, but if he had set his mind on killing people, it didn’t really matter if he had access to guns or none. I am not saying that imposing stricter controls on guns is not a good idea, because it is. But that is not the main issue here.

The issue is that someone was deeply troubled and no one did something about it. We are not doing enough to address mental health, or in helping kids cope with what they have to put up with.

Our kids are growing up in a world where previously unimaginable options are now available in order to cope with the many difficulties they have to contend with. It’s a world we are co-creating. It is time to confront the question: What is it that makes these terrible things happen and what are we doing about it?


Anonymous said…
hi bong, it' cho seung-hui, not cho heung sui. :-)
exskindiver said…
well said, bong.

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